How to Fix a Water Damaged Ceiling

How to Fix a Water Damaged Ceiling

Signs of a Leaking Ceiling

A ceiling leak can be as obvious as water dripping from the ceiling onto the floor, or it can manifest itself in ways that are more difficult to detect: musty smells, ceiling fixtures full of water, or infestations of insects. Most ceiling leaks are persistent, not one-off or isolated problems. The leak does pass through the ceiling, but it can also continue and drip down walls.

Bubbled Paint

Bubbled ceiling paint is often a sign of a ceiling leak. Interior latex paint is sturdy enough to hold in water, much like a balloon. So, the water passes through the ceiling drywall or plaster and is held back by the paint layer.

Dark or Rancid Water

The leaking water is often dark-colored and it will stain white or light ceilings or walls. It may smell mildewy or even rancid. Or, the water might be clear and odor-free.

Events Causing Leaks

A leaking ceiling can often appear after it rains or snows or with activities in the home, such as flushing a toilet or taking a shower. Ceiling patches may even indicate previous ceiling leaks.


Ceiling condensation is not a ceiling leak, though the two can be confused for each other. In ceiling condensation, steam collects on the ceiling and forms water drops, which give the impression of a ceiling leak. Ceiling condensation is the result of poorly ventilated bathrooms, kitchens, or laundry rooms.


Track Down and Repair

Next, it’s time to track down and repair the source. Water can travel a surprising distance from the initial leak, and roof leaks in particular can be tough to isolate. Even in an apparently simple situation, such as when a bathroom is directly above the stain, there are still a number of potential sources for the water. It could be a leaking drain, loose supply line, or missing caulk.

You may need to cut a hole in the ceiling in order to see where the water is coming from, and if you’re having trouble re-creating the leak, you might try the old trick of laying sheets toilet paper along pipes and ceiling joists. The toilet paper will clearly show any reaction to moisture, allowing you to narrow the scope of your search.

How to find and fix roof leaks.

How to Repair a Ceiling Damaged by Leaks

  1. Remove all water-logged ceiling drywall and insulation.
  2. Cut back the drywall (even undamaged drywall) to the nearest joists.
  3. Add two-by-fours along the joists to provide an attachment surface for the drywall screws.
  4. Cut a to the size of the missing panel.
  5. With an assistant, lift the drywall into place.
  6. Screw the drywall onto the joists with a cordless drill and drywall screws. Space the screws every 7 to 8 inches along the edges and every 12 inches in the field (or center area).

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

Step 2: Identifying the Source of the Water

It can be hard to find the source if the water travels far from the source of the leak and ends up in an unexpected place. However, keep in mind that ceiling leaks generally start from one of two places: the roof or plumbing. Water damage that is directly below an attic or roof, the culprit could be a leaky roof that’s been damaged by hail or an ice dam, or an issue with your chimney, caused by storm damage or age. Clogged gutters can also cause water issues near your roof line. Watch for these other signs to suspect to roof:

  • The ceiling appears wet during or soon after rainfall
  • Insulation is wet in the attic
  • The water is brown (it’s bringing dirt with it)

If you have a two-story home, water on a first-floor ceiling is most likely coming from a frozen, burst pipe or other plumbing issue upstairs. If the water damage is below plumbing pipes, such as a bathroom or kitchen, watch for these other signs:

  • There is no weather event
  • The leak is steady
  • The water is clear

In any case, a property restoration professional can assess your situation to identify the source of the water and find a permanent solution, before you undertake any cosmetic repairs.

Identifying the Source of Mystery Leaks

Your roof is responsible for keeping water out of your home, but rain is not the only source of moisture. Have you failed to find a hole in your roof? Consider alternative problems. Condensation builds up around pipes and ductwork. Plumbing leaks. How can you tell whether water is coming from one of these sources instead of your roof?

Ruling out a leaking water pipe is simple. Your water meter keeps track of the gallons you’re using in real time. Turn off all the water features in your home, and if your usage continues to climb, you know you need to shut off the supply to the house and call a plumber. Detecting a condensation problem is trickier.

Chances are your attic is a den of hot, humid air. This also occurs in the spaces between the exterior and interior walls of your home. Normally, indoor humidity doesn’t get high enough to damage the building materials in the structure. The problem occurs when ductwork and plumbing transports cold air and cold water through these hot areas.

Warm air is capable of holding more moisture than cold air, so when the air around cold ductwork and cold water pipes drops, the moisture it’s holding needs somewhere to go. It pools on metal surfaces, and when enough droplets form, it drips off onto wood, insulation, wiring and other materials in hidden areas of your home. Condensation problems usually come to light when mold in the attic from a roof leak spreads from these areas through drywall or ceiling panels into living areas.

Periodic energy audits and insulation updates help prevent condensation problems and resulting damage.

Repairing a Drywall Ceiling Yourself

As with many other home repair projects, you can often fix a damaged ceiling yourself. This is especially true of a drywall ceiling. Thankfully, you will rarely have to replace the entire ceiling.

Repair Options for Drywall Ceilings

There are a few choices available for fixing drywall although not all are advisable for use in ceilings. The three most common methods are:

  • Self-adhesive drywall mesh – This metal mesh is useful for patching holes in drywall and provides a means to support your spackle. Unfortunately, mesh repairs tend to sag when used on ceilings and are thus not a good choice.
  • Drywall access panels – One option that has seen some popularity growth is the installation of a drywall access hatch when repairing a section of damaged ceiling. Not only does the hatch installation replace the damaged portion of drywall ceiling, it also provides a means to inspect periodically for further damage. Hatches are especially useful when installed under plumbing that is known develop leaks.
  • Replacing an individual section – Perhaps the most popular method is to simply cut out the damaged section of drywall and put a new panel in its place. This works best in smaller areas, although high ceilings may be more difficult to work on.

Gathering Supplies

Before attempting repairs, it is best to gather the necessary supplies. You will also want to keep pets and small children out of the room until all repairs are finished. To effectively repair the ceiling, you will need:

  • pencil and combination square
  • drywall joint compound
  • four or six inch putty knife or drywall blade
  • 12 inch drywall blade
  • cordless drill
  • drywall repair panel (measuring two by two by one-half inches)
  • one and one-fourth inch drywall screws (course threaded)
  • drywall screw setters
  • tape measure
  • utility knife
  • self-stick fiberglass drywall tape
  • six inch and twelve inch drywall taping blades
  • drywall jab saw
  • drywall sanding sponge
  • nine by four by one-half inch plywood board to use as a brace (note that SHEETROCK drywall repair clips may be used instead)
  • drop cloth

The cost of one panel, a gallon of compound, a four-pack of screw setters, and a roll of tape will generally run about $23 at places such as Home Depot, making this a relatively inexpensive project if you have access to the tools.

Step 1: Removing the Damaged Section

There may be wires or other delicate items located above the damaged portion of your ceiling. If you cannot access the space to check the area, carefully cut a small hole using your utility knife. Use a flashlight and small mirror to check the area for potential problems before attempting to cut out the section.

Once you have determined where to cut, use your jab saw to cut a rough square around the hole. Do not worry about straight edges yet. If the leak is near a metal drywall ceiling support, your cuts will be restricted to this area for now. Be sure to cut some distance from the damaged portion. You may also wish to use some homemade mold spray around the area before proceeding to kill any mold spores which have taken root.

Step 2: Completing the Cuts

Using your square, pencil out the edges around your repair area. Be sure to make your lines partially overlap any metal drywall runners for better anchoring. Gently score the covering paper along the lines with your utility knife, then insert and rock the blade back and forth along the scored lines, making several passes. Finally, finish with a longer deep pass. Do this process for all four edges.

Step 3: Bracing the Drywall

Take the plywood board and place it inside your opening along an edge opposite a drywall runner. Use your drywall screws and screw setters to attach the plywood brace to the inside of the existing drywall, leaving a two inch clearance. One screw per side is sufficient, and you do not need to screw a side which connects to a runner. The braces and runners will provide a sturdy flange on which to mount the replacement drywall piece.

Step 4: Cutting the Replacement Panel

Measure and mark the dimensions for the replacement panel using your square and paper. Be sure to make your new panel between one-eighths and three-sixteenths of an inch smaller than the opening you are filling. This will keep the panel from binding.

Step 5: Installing the New Panel

Carefully cut the board, then trim to fit with your utility knife. Use four drywall screws to fasten the panel to the backer board and metal runners. Apply the self-adhesive fiberglass drywall tape along the joints to create a seal.

Next, apply a thin coat of joint compound over the tape with the smaller putty knife. Immediately after coating the tape, spread a thin coating of compound with your 12-inch blade, feathering the edges as you go. It is important to work quickly, as the compound does not take long to dry. Only a thin layer is needed, as you will need to sand off the excess. Allow the patch to dry overnight.

Step 6: Finishing

Take a wet sanding sponge and gently smooth out any high spots and feather the edges to help the patch blend in. Be sure to wring out any excess water and rinse the sponge when necessary to prevent any clogging from compound debris. Allow to dry. You may wish to add a second layer of compound and repeat the drying and sanding process.

As a final step, paint the area over. You may wish to take a piece of the removed drywall for color matching if your ceiling is a particular shade or the patch is otherwise visible.

What Are the Signs of Ceiling Water Damage?

Thankfully, most signs of ceiling leaks are easy to see. Water spots on the ceiling are common, but water dripping or leaking is a more urgent problem. If you have any of the following signs, find and fix the water leak right away. After you fix the leak, you still need to repair the ceiling water damage.

Water Leaks From the Ceiling

You should always treat water leaking from your ceiling as a major problem. In most cases, you can find the cause of the leak easily. Look at the plumbing above the damage for leaks or overflows. If the roof is directly above the ceiling, look for damaged shingles.

Sagging Ceiling

A sagging ceiling is also a sign of a ceiling leak. As the water saturates the ceiling material, it also weakens it. The weight of the water will then cause the ceiling to start to sag. Although most common in drop tile ceilings, water can also cause drywall and plaster ceilings to sag as well. Typically, a sagging ceiling indicates a moderate water leak or issue.

Peeling Paint or Cracked Plaster

Another sign of a ceiling leak is peeling paint or plaster. This is most common with a small leak that leaves the ceiling wet for a long time. Over time, the water causes the paint to bubble or peel. Wet plaster shrinks and expands, causing cracks.

Yellowish-Brown Water Spots

Yellowish-brown water spots on the ceiling also mean you have a problem. These water spots mean the leak is small enough that the area has time to dry. Repeated or inconsistent leaks will form rings as the water spreads further from the source over time. Even if they feel dry to the touch, water spots on the ceiling mean you have a leak somewhere.

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